Digging their own graves is what feeds them

Sep 9, 2008 by

This title is the most important line I take away from Maitri’s report of her trip with Karen Gadbois of Squandered Heritage down the bayou deep into Hurricane Gustav ground zero in Terrebonne Parish.

A good number of the men I talked with on the island work as roughnecks, roustabouts, derrick hands and contractors on offshore oil platforms. They spoke of the irony of working for an industry that destroys their land and ecosystem but offers them a steady paycheck. If they give up working as oilmen and start a petition for the removal of oil-producing infrastructure from their area, how else will they stay economically viable? Everyone agreed that digging their own graves is what feeds them, but their hands are tied.

This is the result of the inshore and offshore oil exploitation political leaders on the right are touting with their “Drill, Drill, Drill!” chants. I want to grab the woman on the American Petroleum Institute TV ad, the one who smiles at the camera and tells us how wonderful and green unfettered drilling will be, grab her by the hair and drag her down to Isle de Jean Charles show her what unrestricted drilling does, and defy her to smile into the camera ever again.

I want to herd all those happy Americans at the end of the API ad, the ones they tell us favor more drilling, into one of the unairconditioned school buses we use in evacuation and drive them down deep into Terrebonne and show them these people, show them what has happened to the land, and ask them if they are still happy to drill.

The ad suggests that drilling for oil is an environmentally sound activity. The ad does not go so far as many mostly Republican pro-oil congressman go and claim that the absence of oil spills during Katrina to demonstrate how safe the activity is. Perhaps that is because that is a bald-faced and willful lie.

Here in Louisiana we have prospered from oil drilling (although we do not receive the same royalty payments the other 49 states enjoy). People with little education whose parents and grandparents wrested a subsistence life off the land and water have made a good living in the oil patch. Louisiana is thick with companies that serve the oil beast, paying good wages and making their owners wealthy. We have dug with our own hands the 10,000 miles of canals that have drowned the marsh in salt and turned land into open water.

And so we have died in the thousands when hurricanes sweep over the open water that was once land that sheltered us. And the land upon which (and off of which) the coastal people have lived for centuries is vanishing around them, and their way of life with it.

We are losing an area larger than Delaware and the unique local culture of the Acadians (and the largely assimilated Houma who are, like my German ancestors from the Cote des Allemandes, Acadian in every way except lineage). At the end of the month, the paychecks are gone and what do these people have in compensation for the taking of their land and their lives? When the oil is gone the paychecks will be gone for good. Then what will they do? The people of the Acadian coast have built a life over 300 years that is as closely tied to the water as your’s or mine is to the air we breathe. Will we tell them to get over it, to move on and move to some distant city to take jobs at Wal-Mart?

If that is the best we can do, then I wish to announce that the American Experiment is over and the results are in: it failed.

I see that API ad (and you can’t escape it if you are watching the hurricane coverage on the news) and I want to stand up and ask all the viewers of CNN or the Weather Channel the question I have often posed, and then ask if they still want to drill:

Imagine this if you will: Los Angeles is the city most closely associated with America’s lust affair with the personal automobile, and production of the oil necessary to make that lifestyle possible is in large part responsible for coastal erosion.

If we applied Louisiana’s coastal erosion rate to the Los Angeles coastline (which Google tells me stretches 76 miles from Malibu to Long Beach), the city would have to move back from the sea a little under one mile a year. Would the Hummer continue to be so popular in SoCal if it were their land they were giving up at such an alarming rate in the name of cheap gas?

People in the nation to the north frequently whine and complain when we ask for help after hurricanes, or for the funding to build our levees and restore our wetlands. Louisiana is the new poster child for government dependence in their play book, the new Cadillac-driving welfare queen. This is no more true than Reagan’s fable from the 1980s. What we seek is fair and full compensation for the price we have paid, for the burdens we carry to make the Mississippi navigable and to provide the nation with oil and gas. America is taking our lands and our lives and pays nothing. It is not a question of the people of the Hurricane Coast of Louisiana depending on you. The question is: how much longer can Louisiana afford to carry America on its back?

When you are finished reading Maitri’s post then run don’t walk to your local bookstore and find a copy of Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell, the sad tale of the slow death of the Acadian Coast.

Mark Folse was the author of the retired Katrina blog Wet Bank Guide, and currently blogs at Toulouse Street–Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans. A native of New Orleans, he returned to live in New Orleans post-Katrina after a 20 year absence.

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